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From viral to permission marketing: what is your strategy?

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April 12, 2016 by Alessio Bartoli

It was 1995 when the term “viral marketing” officially became popular. The creators of Hotmail had recently launched their email service and a smart expedient let them to gain millions of users within months. Every time you sent an email via Hotmail, you were also sending a marketing message pinned at the bottom of every single email saying “Get your free web-based email at Hotmail”. The virus metaphor was perfectly fitting: while communicating, people was also sending a marketing message, often unconsciously. And so the process kept going with more users, more email sent, more people receiving an invitation to join Hotmail. And they did join!

Metaphors curiously related to biology, such as “virus” or “meme”, are nowadays widely used to describe how certain contents are able to reach millions of people around the world thanks to the web. Anyway, we need to consider what Henry Jenkins suggests in his book Spreadable media (New York University Press, 2013). Unlike the spread of a virus, these contents get popular because of a conscious and active word-of-mouth among people who decide which friends they want to share the content with, how and where to share it and above all, what they want to communicate about themselves by sharing someone else content.

More then twenty years have passed since 1995 and the web, with its dynamism, is indeed deeply changed. Someone is still calling it web 2.0, someone else prefer the term new web to avoid using a label which risks being already outdated. Whatever you call it, what matters is that the most successful web based case histories are nowadays content driven. A brand that provide relevant contents to its audience and promote interaction on social networks takes a big risk, but trust and engagement are the reward. Is also to be considered that we are overloaded with information, pop-ups, banners and other advertising formats designed to interrupt what we are doing online and force us to notice the ad.

These insights have driven the marketing guru Seth Godin to develop the idea of a “permission marketing” in opposition to “interruption marketing”. According to Godin permission marketing is:

the privilege (not the right) of delivering anticipated, personal and relevant messages to people who actually want to get them.

This means inverting the traditional process by asking the prospects the permission of getting in touch with them. As a result, a brand would naturally identify its target to start building a strong relationship. Permission marketing is then probably more cost-efficient if compared to traditional methods. A good example is Opt-in email, where internet users sign-up to receive a newsletter or information about a certain product.

Considering time as a scarce resource and the pressure of traditional ADV, the different approach proposed by Seth Godin is probably an effective way for a brand to be heard.

The question is: can it be applied to any kind of business?

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